‘Lin­coln in the Bardo’ au­dio­book is a who’s who of 166 voices

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY KATHER­INE A. POW­ERS book­world@wash­post.com

The au­dio ver­sion of Ge­orge Saun­ders’s first novel, “Lin­coln in the Bardo,” is a gabfest made up of 166 voices, among them those of Lena Dun­ham, Su­san Saran­don and Car­rie Brown­stein, and lu­mi­nar­ies from the au­dio­book world, in­clud­ing Cas­san­dra Camp­bell, Robertson Dean and Mark Bramhall. Many of Saun­ders’s as­so­ciates, friends and fam­ily mem­bers also pipe up. The novel is set in 1862 in a Ge­orge­town ceme­tery, whose most re­cent ten­ant is Abra­ham and Mary Lin­coln’s beloved son Wil­lie. The place teems with dis­con­so­late souls gov­erned by ar­cane rules and is dom­i­nated by three chief speak­ers, masters of cere­ments, as it were: Hans Voll­man, who suf­fers a dras­tic case of post­mortem pri­apism and is given a somber, old-dog voice by Nick Of­fer­man (who also af­fects a most con­vinc­ing, griev­ing Lin­coln); Roger Bevins III, a sui­cide who now sports su­per­nu­mer­ary body parts and has the nice, brushy voice of David Sedaris; and the Rev. Everly Thomas, the only one in­terred here who re­al­izes that he’s dead, played by Saun­ders him­self. This is a ram­bunc­tious, of­ten scat­o­log­i­cal book, and very sad, too. It dif­fers from the printed ver­sion in that ob­scene lan­guage is ut­tered rather than in­di­cated by blanks and as­ter­isks. It’s a lit­tle hard to keep track of who’s who in the be­gin­ning, and the whole pro­duc­tion im­proves greatly on a sec­ond lis­ten.

Bill Mumy nar­rates Dou­glas Pre­ston’s en­gag­ing, first­hand ac­count of a per­ilous ex­pe­di­tion into the jun­gle of Hon­duras to find relics of a van­ished civ­i­liza­tion, “The Lost City of the Mon­key God.” Pre­ston and his fel­low seek­ers con­front nigh-im­pen­e­tra­ble veg­e­ta­tion, man-swal­low­ing mud pits, jaguars, lethal vipers, and a mul­ti­tude of bit­ing in­sects car­ry­ing a med­ley of par­a­sites, among them the flesh-eat­ing leish­ma­nia. Plen­ti­ful, hor­ri­fy­ing de­tails are supplied, oc­ca­sion­ally to comic ef­fect: “Hey, guys,” moans Mumy, con­vey­ing Pre­ston’s dis­may as his flash­light il­lu­mi­nates a six-foot, head-sway­ing fer-de­lance, “there’s a gi­ant snake here.” One old hand re­marks un­help­fully, “There’s rarely just one.” The book also goes deeply into the prob­a­ble cul­ture of the aban­doned city and the rea­sons for its dis­ap­pear­ance (dev­as­ta­tion by Euro­pean dis­eases, most likely). This su­perb, many-lay­ered book in­cludes en­ter­tain­ing ac­counts of pre­vi­ous at­tempts — real and fraud­u­lent — to find the city, but it’s more than the story of ar­chaeo- log­i­cal ex­pe­di­tions. It is also an eco­log­i­cal trea­tise, his­tor­i­cal in­quiry, epi­demi­o­log­i­cal in­quest and a tale of tooth-and-nail in­fight­ing among schol­ars. A PDF of maps and pho­to­graphs is in­cluded with both down­load and disc ver­sions of the au­dio­book.

Neil Gaiman de­liv­ers his own retelling of 15 Norse leg­ends in “Norse Mythol­ogy” in a strong, res­o­nant voice, ex­actly the sort to tackle the gods, to say noth­ing of frost and moun­tain giants, trolls, ogres and sundry mon­sters. There never was an abun­dance of sweet­ness and light in the Norse myths. Not only does the cy­cle end in calamity and death in Rag­narok, but through­out it’s pretty much one damned thing after an­other: shoddy work­man­ship, stolen ham­mer, stolen hair, stolen golden ap­ples, bro­ken con­tracts, bait-and-switch scams, unchecked ag­ing, raven­ing wolves, ill-tem­pered giants and, of course, the shape-shift­ing Loki, hand­some trick­ster and arch be­grudger (“the snivel­ing lit­tle weasel,” in Thor’s words). Yes, th­ese tales are won­der­ful. In his telling and in his voice, Gaiman in­dulges in sim­ple, clod-godly hu­mor (mighty Thor dressed up as a blush­ing bride). But also, when war­ranted, he rises to cap­ture the majesty and hor­ror of the dark forces against which th­ese char­ac­ters are pit­ted — or in the case of Loki, his evil spawn and a few other bad ac­tors, by which they are pos­sessed. This is a fine read­ing and re­vamp­ing of leg­ends that have sur­vived for some thou­sand years.

LIN­COLN IN THE BARDO By Ge­orge Saun­ders Ran­dom House Au­dio. Unabridged, 7½ hours.

THE LOST CITY OF THE MON­KEY GOD By Dou­glas Pre­ston Ha­chette Au­dio. Unabridged, 10½ hours.

NORSE MYTHOL­OGY By Neil Gaiman HarperAu­dio. Unabridged, 6½ hours.

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